I remember the first time I heard a Zambian person lament that life was better under British colonial rule. I had just arrived in Zambia to complete a year-long human rights fellowship and was facilitating a lesson on human rights law for community educators. As I began to discuss the right to education, a man in his mid-sixties interjected that no right to education exists in Zambia. I countered that, because it had ratified various human rights treaties, the Zambian government had agreed to provide free and compulsory primary education to all children. Unconvinced, the man responded that he, unlike most young people, could engage in a conversation about his human rights precisely because he had benefited from the colonial education system. Since then, the education system had crumbled, leaving young people ill-equipped to improve their lives and participate thoughtfully in the development of their nation.
Throughout my stay in Zambia, I heard several variations of this man's statement. The notion that colonial education provided better opportunities for Zambian young people startled me. However, it underscored the reality that some post-colonial governments have failed to fulfill a central component of the social contract between the state and its citizens: providing free, compulsory, quality education to all individuals.
Primary school enrollment in Zambia has mushroomed in the last few years due to a 2006 legal reform that makes government primary education free, though not compulsory, through grade seven. By the Zambian Government's own account, it is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015. However, many groups have complained that how the government monitors education results in statistical anomalies. They argue that the statistics conceal that many economically vulnerable children still do not attend school because of hidden fees - such as parent teacher association, uniform, book and exam fees - that make primary education unaffordable. For those who do attend school, the quality of education is low. Some government primary schools have a teacher-pupil ratio of one to one hundred.
Because of the high cost of public school, neighborhood "community schools" have emerged. These schools paradoxically provide a lower-cost alternative to free government primary schools. Unfortunately, these schools lack regulation of academic standards and adequate financial support. As a result, even community schools are constrained to levy fees on impoverished students to pay for teacher salaries and classroom construction.
My own experience in Zambia confirmed that universal primary education is more rhetoric than reality. Each Friday, I volunteered to teach a class at a community school for children who were orphaned by AIDS. Of my twenty-seven fifth and sixth-grade students, only a handful could read and write in their local language or in English. Some could not spell their name. Their limited academic knowledge was not surprising, as their teacher had completed only third grade, and lacked the tools to teach children with special needs. I visited another community school to enroll a young girl who had dropped out after becoming pregnant several years earlier. The cost of enrollment for one semester was 200,000 Kwacha -- about forty dollars -- an exorbitant amount, given that most Zambians live on less than one dollar a day.
The Zambian Government's exaggeration of its achievement in providing universal primary education has been widely accepted by the international community. The US Agency for International Development's website applauds the Zambian Government for making "serious effort to recover and reform the education sector" and for its "commitment to the Millennium Development Goals." These accolades suggest that other governments are reluctant to take the Zambian Government to task for failing to fulfill its legal obligation to provide free, compulsory, quality primary education for every Zambian child.
Zambia, like most other African countries, has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These treaties require states to immediately make primary education free, compulsory, and equally available to all children. The Zambian Government is duty-bound to effectuate the human right to education. Likewise, these treaties oblige Zambia to seek international assistance and cooperation to meet its legal obligations. The international community should offer assistance to help Zambia discharge its duties with respect to education. Professional exchanges in which foreign professionals share their expertise with Zambian organizations are an often overlooked, yet essential, type of international assistance. Education-related professional exchanges could take the shape of lawyers providing technical assistance to draft education reforms and investigate government officials found to squander money allocated for the education sector, statisticians assisting with education monitoring, teachers sharing strategies for educating children with disabilities, and auditors helping to enforce tax laws to finance education.
Undoubtedly, the primary obligation to realize human rights falls on the shoulders of each government. However, the international community can and should help struggling countries fulfill their obligation to provide free and compulsory education -- not only through financial assistance, but through creative exchanges of professional knowledge.